As you no doubt have heard, this week Hungary made some headlines in the US, due to a rash of embarrassing stories about incoming US Ambassador to Budapest Colleen Bell (above, as the big butt of a comic segment on the “Daily Show”), and some very tart comments about her and the current Hungarian government by Senator (and former GOP Presidential nominee) John McCain.
To be truthful, it was only a minor blip of a story over here in America, mostly attracting the attention of people who, like me, remain really pissed off that US President Barack Obama so scuzzily went back on his solemn pre-election pledge to end the sleazy practice of handing out ambassadorships to big-money campaign donors like the soap opera producer Bell. The story – especially the McCain angle – seemed to have been at least 100 times bigger in Hungary. Which is unsurprising, given that the influence of the US government over events in Hungary is at least 100 times that of the Hungarian government’s influence of events in the US. (If you doubt this, consider yesterday’s dispatch by the Associated Press entitled “US criticism boosts Hungary’s dissent movement,” and try to imagine a similar headline with the countries reversed.)
To be even more truthful, I am still so pissed off about Obama’s skanky betrayal and Bell’s laughable dilettantism, and unsettled by what seems to be Washington’s increasingly brazen meddling in the domestic politics of a fellow NATO member, I find it hard not to root against Team America in this case. So even though Hungarian Prime Viktor Orbán and his government are rather nasty pieces of work, here’s my free advice on how they can use the Bell fiasco to their advantage, in three easy steps.
1. Get rid of André Goodfriend. Last week opposition-friendly Hungarian commercial channel ATV featured an interview with a mid-ranking US State Department official named Thomas Melia in which Melia denied a report on state television that current chargé d’affaires André Goodfriend – who has run the embassy since the last unqualified moneybags ambassador went home – was leaving Budapest. (The report claimed Goodfriend would be replaced because “he appeared often and conspicuously at political events connected to Hungarian left-wing and liberal circles.”) In addition to being yet another reminder of the appalling mismatch in the two countries’ relative power – thanks to such media appearances Goodfriend and even Melia are household names in Hungary – it was a useful indication of Goodfriend’s perceived effectiveness and status as a quasi-savior of the opposition. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a more energetic, eloquent and effective diplomat dedicated to righting what America thinks are wrongs, and who could help Bell make the most of her time as ambassador. Which is why he needs to go, ASAP.
As for how to get rid of Goodfriend, there are any number of ways. No doubt Goodfriend’s name has come up as official from Hungary’s foreign ministry have put together a plan to ban certain US officials from entering Hungary, mirroring the visa ban Washington slapped on Hungarian tax authority chief Ildikó Vida and a handful of other Hungarian officials allegedly guilty of corruption. I, however, would suggest something a bit more nuanced, namely telling Washington that the arrival of a new ambassador offers a chance for a fresh start in the bilateral relationship, and that, despite his good intentions, too many Hungarians see Goodfriend as partisan for him to play a constructive role in this new era of détente. If the Americans hesitate, they can play a little tougher, by threatening to make Bell a constant embarrassment for Foggy Bottom (the embarrassing nickname erudite American call the State Department’s Washington HQ), or even to refuse her credentials. The latter would of course not be much of a stretch, since she is now world famous for not having any credentials as a diplomat. And boy would it be an embarrassment for Obama, not least since he already spent her money. Still, the objective should be to replace the scrappy crusader hero with the over-entitled rich mall chick.
2. Kill Bell with kindness… Once Bell arrives, the government should immediately make it clear to her that her new job is worth every penny she and her LA friends paid for it. She should be wined, dined, schmoozed and snowed so hard she’ll forget all this business about creeping authoritarianism faster than you can say “the prime minister wants to get your feedback on something, Your Excellency.” In case you think this is unlikely or impossible, note that Orbán allegedly charmed Bell’s predecessor April Foley to distraction, and back then he was just a grumpy former prime minister. (“I can understand exactly what you are going through, Colleen. I too have been turned into a caricature by the media. But we – and history – are bigger than that.”)
3. …while sticking in and twisting the knife Even with Goodfriend out of the picture and Bell buttered up all the way to her botox holes, there will doubtless remain a dangerous anti-Orbán tilt at the embassy. So while Orbán and his people should take pains to publicly treat her as the respected face of Hungary’s new rapprochement with America, behind her back they should offer (and engineer) constant reminders of her buffoonery and impotence, spreading enthusiasm-sucking dismay on a Hungarian left that these days seems like it would be happy for an American-backed coup d’état if it would put their people back in charge.
And if there’s anything I’ve learned since returning to the US, it’s that this country is tired of its government going around the world overthrowing other governments – even when this government is not being represented by ambassadors who have bought their positions like the latest designer accessory. So while I am still no fan of Viktor Orbán and his gang, in this case they can consider me their good friend in America.